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Sully has two main jobs: a) to provide insight into the man responsible for successfully saving the lives of all passengers and crew aboard his flight and b) to put us on that flight. In most respects, Clint Eastwood‘s film accomplishes this, showcasing the immeasurable talents of the director and his star, despite some issues with its presentation that slightly mar but don’t ruin this inspiring true story.
Tom Hanks needs no further evidence in convincing the world he is one of this and any other generation’s finest actors. His impressive catalog of characters and films have made him one of the most versatile actors working in cinema and like how one character in the movie calls Captain Sullenberger a man for all time, so too is the man who portrays him. It’s another genuine performance.
The events of US Airways Flight 1549 became international news and made Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger a household name and hero in the eyes of the world for doing something no other pilot in aviation history had ever done, land a plane in water after dual engine failure below 2900 feet. The movie centers mostly on what happened after both in terms of public reception to the incident and the less known investigation that followed, which initially suggested the plane might have been saved and Sully’s reports not valid.
Like most projects that depict an accident or trauma that is revisited by a survivor, the story teases the actual moment sporadically until the ending when it all comes together. Likewise, Eastwood begins the movie in the air as the now familiar plane hurdles out of the sky and into a valley of tall buildings before erupting into a fireball, forcing Sully of course, to wake up from his nightmare. It will be one of a few, both while sleeping and in quiet personal reflection that reveal how the event affected the captain in the days following, hinting at an entirely plausible sense of doubt about how his actions might have had a very different outcome.
That the real life event lasted a mere 208 seconds after the bird strike and then 24 minutes after for all passengers and crew to be safely accounted for is an important narrative point as well, and Eastwood makes sure to shine a good light on those that came to the sinking plane’s rescue, but to be sure, this is Sully’s story. Yet, truthfully, we don’t feel that much closer to the humble and charming man. We get two flashbacks to what are relative moments in his life, each framed and filmed in rather obvious “look how these mirror the future” ways. Neither provide any great depth to the character nor really give any more weight to convincing us that Sully wasn’t the right man for the job that day. They feel perfunctory and a bit false, but are thankfully brief.
More distracting though is the entirely wasted Laura Linney as Sully’s exasperated wife Lorraine, who literally spends the whole of her performance on the phone. These moments are sadly vapid and do nothing to support the Sully character. Linney is a remarkable talent, one that Eastwood has given much better attention to before, but not here. Still, she fares better than the actual passengers of Flight 1549, all of whom seem angelic, with special attention given to three men who race to the plane as if they were Jack and Fabrizio running for the Titanic, the irony painted with a heavy hand. On board, all are smiling, pleasant passengers, where even a restless baby is utterly welcomed by the man seated next him. True or not, there is a feeling that the producers want no issue concerning the people Sully saved.
That aside, there is no blemishing how well Hanks keeps this afloat, no pun intended. By this point in his career, it’s impossible not to see Hanks in his performances, a gift he was so easily able to do in earlier films, but surprisingly, the fact that it is Hanks we are looking at somehow makes him more believable. Like a Pavlovian response, we see his face and kind of settle in, knowing whatever we are about to see will be affecting. Such is the case here as well, and Hanks once again delivers. But so too does Aaron Eckert playing co-pilot Jeff Skiles, in a subtle but amusing role that gives humor and humanity to the two-sided coin that these two men are part of.
While there are moments that feel a little manipulative, staged for maximum emotional impact, it manages to work for the most part. The depiction of the landing is also handled well, purposefully devoid of over-drama, almost like an analytic simulation, and it’s the right choice, the final moments of the rescue layered with a few soft musical tones to accentuate the spirited nature of a people who come together when the worst strikes, something the city knows all too well.
Sully is not a sweeping biography with epic adventure and probing questions. It is a brief, tightly made and sharply pointed story about a man who, as he flatly states, was just doing his job. You won’t learn much about him you don’t already know but that’s not the point. You will appreciate him though.
Director: Clint Eastwood
Writers: Todd Komarnicki (screenplay), Chesley Sullenberger (book)
Stars: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney